Next stop…Mercury: Arianespace launches the BepiColombo mission to explore the “Swift Planet”
Arianespace marked another mission accomplished for science tonight as its heavy-lift Ariane 5 successfully sent BepiColombo – Europe’s historic first mission to Mercury, organized in cooperation with Japan – on its way toward the solar system’s smallest and least-explored terrestrial planet.
Ascending from the Spaceport’s ELA-3 launch complex at 10:45:28 p.m. local time in French Guiana – the planned precise moment of liftoff – Ariane 5 lofted its passenger during a flight lasting just under 27 minutes, with the multi-segment BepiColombo spacecraft deployed into an Earth escape orbit.
As the nearest planet to the Sun, exploring Mercury is key to acquiring knowledge of how terrestrial planets originate and evolve, as well as to understand how conditions supporting life arose in the solar system, and possibly elsewhere. Mercury also is known as the “Swift Planet” because its orbital period around the Sun of 87.97 days is the shortest of all the planets in the solar system.
Mission to Mercury
The BepiColombo mission is being carried out jointly by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). After arriving in late 2025, the spacecraft – built under the industrial leadership of Airbus – will examine the peculiarities of Mercury’s internal structure and magnetic field generation, as well as how the planet interacts with the sun and solar wind.
With a liftoff mass calculated at 4,081 kg., BepiColombo consists of two orbiters: the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) and the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO); as well as two additional elements: the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), and the Magnetospheric Orbiter Sunshield and Interface Structure (MOSIF).
BepiColombo is scheduled for a one-year nominal mission at Mercury, with the possibility for a one-year extension. It was named after Italian mathematician and engineer Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, who was known for his work related to Mercury.
In post-launch comments from the Spaceport, Arianespace Chief Executive Officer Stéphane Israël congratulated both ESA and JAXA – and underscored his company’s continuing contributions to space research and science at the service of such institutions.
“Today’s new success marks the beginning of a seven-year trip for BepiColombo, taking advantage of gravitational assistance from Earth, Venus, and Mercury,” said Israël. “Arianespace is very proud to have contributed to this new major scientific quest!”
He added that Arianespace’s latest Ariane 5 launch was special because of its Earth escape flight profile, and “would not have been possible without our European launchers ‘dream team!’ It showed the versatility of Ariane 5, so let me doubly congratulate all of the partners for this new success.”
The Ariane 5 launch – designated Flight VA245 – was the 23rd major scientific mission performed by an Arianespace family vehicle to date, following deployments of such high-profile passengers as Rosetta, the Mars Express and Venus Express space probes, Gaia, Herschel, Planck and Aeolus. It also underscores Arianespace’s primary objective to guarantee Europe’s independent and reliable access to space.
“We are standing on the shoulders of giants, and the giants are all of you!” said Guenther Hasinger, the ESA Director of Science, in acknowledging the participants in BepiColombo’s development, its launch and the scientific mission to follow. He also thanked Arianespace for Ariane 5’s exact on-time liftoff and the spacecraft’s accurate deployment.
JAXA Senior Vice President Shizuo Yamamoto highlighted the excellent cooperation at the Spaceport launch site of Arianespace, ESA, the CNES French agency and the industrial teams that contributed to sending BepiColombo on its way to Mercury.
Flight VA245 by the numbers
BepiColombo is the 51st mission (and 73rd spacecraft) launched by Arianespace for ESA. It also is the 121st Airbus-produced spacecraft lofted by Arianespace, which has a backlog of 22 additional satellites to orbit for this manufacturer on future flights.
As Arianespace’s seventh launch in 2018, Flight VA245 follows other heavy-lift Ariane 5 missions performed this year on January 25 (carrying SES-14 and Al Yah 3), April 5 (DSN-1/Superbird-8 and HYLAS 4), July 25 (four Galileo satellites) and September 25 (Horizons 3e and Azerspace-2/Intelsat 38).
Also conducted earlier in 2018 was Arianespace’s medium-lift Soyuz mission on March 9 (with four O3b satellites); plus a light-lift Vega flight performed August 22 (Aeolus).
At the completion of tonight’s mission, Arianespace’s Stéphane Israël announced early November as the timing for the company’s next flight, which will utilize a Soyuz launcher to orbit Europe’s Metop-C polar-orbiting meteorological satellite for the EUMETSAT satellite agency.